SCHOOL OF SHOCK: Q+A: John Krish on railway scare film “THE FINISHING LINE”
Last fall I was teaching a course at The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies on classroom safety films, and after a last minute realization that my fuzzy copy of APACHES wouldn’t cut it on a big screen, my scramble for a replacement led me to John Krish’s ghastly-great railway horror THE FINISHING LINE. Equal parts surreal and scary, I was frankly surprised I hadn’t heard of it when plumbing the catalogue of British Public Information Films for a FANGO article the previous summer. While APACHES has been called ‘The FINAL DESTINATION’ of safety films, THE FINISHING LINE has more balls and more bodies than most PIFs I’ve seen combined. And that’s saying something.
Krish came to direct the 1977 shocker after a long and varied career in the biz; while primarily a documentarian for a diverse array of governmental and corporate producers (placing him at odds with his contemporaries in the post-war Free Cinema Movement), Krish’s genre efforts included sci-fi B-picture THE UNEARTHLY STRANGER (1963) as well as the opening credit sequence for TV’s THE AVENGERS (1961-69) along with children’s films (THE SALVAGE GANG, 1958) and the boldly subversive, recently-unearthed POW drama CAPTURED (1959). At least four of his films went on to be banned, for various reasons discussed below.
It was with some irony that Krish came to work for British Transport on THE FINISHING LINE; they’d fired him decades earlier over a production dispute on THE ELEPHANT WILL NEVER FORGET (1953), a remarkable documentary about the last days of London’s streetcars that went on to become their most acclaimed and beloved film.
THE FINISHING LINE is equally memorable, but its lingering place in the British psyche is more associated with nausea than tearful sentimentality. In what has been likened to a Python-esque satire (Krish objects to the comparision), THE FINISHING LINE portrays a fantastical ‘sports day’ along a functioning railway line, where schoolchildren participate in a sanctioned barrage of dangerous games including ‘Fence-breaking’, ‘Stone-throwing’, ‘Last Across’ and – most dire of all – ‘The Great Tunnel Walk’. The end result of all of these games is child fatalities, and Krish doesn’t shy away from showing the bloodied bodies of the fallen players. From today’s perspective, it’s a miracle this ever got made, much less funded by a government organization. But I can bet if you saw this film as a kid, there was no way in hell you’d find yourself near a railway line anytime soon.
Upon a recent visit to the UK, I went with filmmaker and sometime FANGO scribe Sean Hogan to Krish’s home in West London, where the 90-year old filmmaker welcomed us for a sit-down interview. He immediately handed me the recently-reissued BFI Flipside edition of CAPTURED – on which THE FINISHING LINE appears as an extra – and Sean and I began poring over the production credits, kicking off the discussion below.
SEAN HOGAN: So Winding-Refn put money into this as well? He’s been helping BFI Flipside out quite a bit.
KRISH: What a man, eh? He financed this entirely. What a director. I mean, BRONSON is a wonderful movie, isn’t it? The imagination that went into BRONSON, I mean, Tom Hardy’s performance is staggering, isn’t it?
KIER-LA JANISSE: Oh, and Stephen Thrower does liner notes. It’s interesting because Stephen Thrower’s a horror guy…
KRISH: Oh, is he? I’m not a horror guy myself.
JANISSE: I know! I’m just saying it’s interesting how these things sort of cross over.
KRISH: I’m amazed that THE FINISHING LINE kind of gets into that genre.
JANISSE: Yeah, I could tell from your email that it seemed curious to you that it could have this other life as a horror film. And there are harsh educational films in every country, wherever you look, but something like THE FINISHING LINE, you just think about kids watching that, and…
KRISH: I’ve seen it with children, schoolchildren.
KRISH: Oh yes, I made a point of it. And they were very silent, and a few had to be taken out during it, but they’re always what I call ‘the nosebleeders’ – the ones who are going to faint at anything. But it was shown on television and there was a riot afterward. Parents wrote in droves to the COI and the British Transport, anybody, complaining “how dare you show this film!” Wonderful.
JANISSE: So was it made for television?
KRISH: No, it was made for schools, for children between the ages of eight and 11. It was thought, that after 11, if they’re going to play on the railway, they were going to be more difficult to reach.
JANISSE: So how did it end up on TV?
KRISH: Oh, because it became notorious. And so they had it on an early evening program. And they wanted me to go and have a confrontation with people who didn’t like it, and I wasn’t going to sit there and defend something that didn’t need defending, so… But there was a huge outrage about it. They completely forgot the fact that it was a fantasy. But they saw it as real, they said “how dare you have teachers who are encouraging children to run in front of trains!” I mean, it was just rubbish.
JANISSE: And so what did the British Transport, the people you were working for, what was their response?
KRISH: They withdrew it. They banned it for 21 years and refused to allow it to be shown. And the first time it was shown publicly was at my retrospective that the BFI organized in 2003. 21 years it was banned for. Which thrilled me.
HOGAN: that’s like a badge of honour within the horror community!
KRISH: I’m the only documentary director who’s had four films banned! And I rejoice in that.
JANISSE: Which other films were banned?
KRISH: I made a film attacking South Africa, during the Apartheid, after a terrible massacre in a small town called Sharpeville [March 21, 1960], where 70 men women and children were shot in the back by white South African police (LET MY PEOPLE GO, 1961). That was banned from television because they needed cigarette advertising and Rothman was going to withdraw all advertising if it was shown. It was only shown on one channel, Granada, who were very left-wing. There’s CAPTURED, which was banned for 41 years…
JANISSE: Why was CAPTURED banned?
KRISH: It was made for military intelligence, and because it was so strong, it was thought that it would empty the army, the navy and the air force! Because it shows in the most graphic, realistic way – it’s a dramatized documentary – what it was like to be a prisoner [of war]. And recruiting would disappear, so it was only shown to people in the presence of a very senior officer. But it took 41 years for it to reach the public. Then, THE FINISHING LINE, of course, that’s three…there’s got to be another one somewhere. Oh yes! A completely harmless film I made for the Post Office. Which is a jokey film about a day in a post office, which was to get people both sides of the grill to be kinder to each other. And it centers on a post office clerk who I called “Reg”. And you won’t believe this, but it’s absolutely true – the head of the post office, the Postmaster General, his Christian name was Reg. And he thought I was taking the piss out of him. And that film was banned for 21 years. There’s nothing in it! But it was banned. So, you know, I have a reputation.
JANISSE: So how did you end up working for British Transport again? Because you…
KRISH: I was fired.
JANISSE: Yeah, because you were fired from there over your film THE ELEPHANT WILL NEVER FORGET.
KRISH: Well, because they changed the man who was at the head of it.
JANISSE: Okay. Because I watched THE ELEPHANT WILL NEVER FORGET and I cried watching it!
KRISH: Oh, good! I’m so pleased!
JANISSE: And I emailed him (pointing to Sean) and I was like, “Is this even possible? To cry at a movie about a train?”
KRISH: Well, you’re not the first! The majority of people were very weepy. It is very emotional. And I got the sack for it.
JANISSE: What was the reasoning for getting fired over it?
KRISH: Well, here’s what happened. I was the writer, director and editor for the British Transport Film Unit, which was newly-formed and I was a sort of founding member. So I was on the staff. And Edgar Anstey, who was an old time documentarian, worked with John Grierson – very dull man, I have to tell you – was the head of the unit. And he called me in one Friday and said, “Next week on Saturday, the trams are coming off, and I want you to go to Newcross Depot,”- which is the place that they would finish on – “and photograph the chairman shaking hands with the driver of the last tram.” And I said, “Well you’ve got to make a film, if they’re going to disappear. Once they’ve gone nobody will know what a tram is.” And he said absolutely no, there’s no film in it. So I came out of his office knowing he was wrong, found an assistant cameraman who I knew could photograph, and said, “I want you to come with me to South London for a week, and we’ll get two assistants, come to the office before anybody’s there, get the camera, get the tripod, and go every day.” Which is what I did. I played truant. And I produced the film, which became the most popular film the Transport Unit had ever made. One that is always out for hire, and had a screening at the Leicester Square Odeon. And that was too much for Edgar. The fact that the film was a success was too much. So he sent me a note saying, “Dear John, thank you very much for all your work with the unit, but I think it’s time for new blood.” And I was 29! I mean, the man’s an asshole. He’s dead now.
JANISSE: It’s really haunting. It almost personifies the trams.
KRISH: Well, years later he had a different attitude to “the sacking”. Sure enough he said, “I always knew John Krish was absolutely right for this film, because of his poetic nature.” I thought, bollocks, what an idiot.
JANISSE: It’s interesting because in America, educational films account for the majority of films that get made, but no one ever writes about them in any sense that equals their proliferation. In the 1920s and whenever educational films started becoming popular, there were periodicals for people who were in the industry, teachers and such, so that they could read the catalogues and pick which films to show in class, but those are the only writings that survive on a lot of these films. And there are hundreds of thousands of them. So I always find it interesting that when you make industrial films, or films for a company like that, instructional films, educational films – I mean, I think it’s great that the BFI is preserving them and putting them out, because in the states the only people preserving these films are people who rescue them out of the garbage. It’s just a shame that they’re so glossed over in film history. And some of them are just amazing.
KRISH: And important. Socially important. And – not to talk about myself – but that was what Anstey couldn’t see, was that the older the film THE ELEPHANT… got, the more important it became as a social document of the time.
JANISSE: Just going back to THE FINISHING LINE and how upsetting that must have been, do you know if it had any impact on railway safety?
KRISH: Yes, a mother wrote to the headmaster at a school where it was shown and said “How dare you show this film, my daughter had nightmares.” And shortly after the same mother wrote again saying “Thank you for showing the film, because I know my daughter will never go near a railway again.” I mean, I made it as an emetic. I don’t apologize for that. What’s interesting is that once it was banned, British Transport sat down as a committee and wrote a film called ROBBIE (1979). It has no guts to it. It’s supposed to stop children playing on the railway but it’s terribly weak. It’s a perfect example of being anxious to please everybody and to not offend anybody, and the film has no impact whatsoever for children.
JANISSE: And they made it kind of quickly on the heels of your film to placate the parents?
KRISH: Exactly. And THE FINISHING LINE was one of the hardest films I’ve had to shoot, because it was the last week of term before the school holidays that I had these children for five days on a railway line. And I couldn’t get on the line til half past nine because of the trains, and I had to come off it by half past three. So it wasn’t really five days, it was like three days, with 175 children.
JANISSE: And this was a non-operational track?
KRISH: Oh no, it was still being used before and after. So there was no way that I could go over come Friday, because the children were going on holiday. This shows you what you have to put up with as a director: you remember the Great Tunnel Walk? There’s a sign that says start and a sign that says finish. I shoot the start, with them lined up. And this was one of two films I’ve done with the camera in my hand – so I’m doing the tunnel shot, of them coming into the tunnel. So it goes to the other end, and I want the sign to say ‘finish’. And I say, “Where’s the sign?” And they said, “Oh, well the production office, to save money, had the word ‘finish’ on the other side of the same sign that said ‘start’. (Sarcastic silence) This was news to me, and I’m running out of time. Because the tunnel was three and a half miles long, it took two hours to de-rig the original sign, bring it through the tunnel and put it where I wanted it at the other end, which left me 20 minutes to shoot the entire last sequence of the children being carried out of the tunnel.
KRISH: And there’s no way I could go over. The kids would all be gone on holiday. That’s the front office saving money.
JANISSE: It’s funny, the movie’s called THE FINISHING LINE, obviously the finishing line sign would be kind of important.
JANISSE: I would still just be freaked out about that train track still being in use at all, and not completely blocked off, because who knows? A runaway train could have an accident and need to switch tracks…
KRISH: Well, it didn’t happen. But we did have a train of course, the ‘Last Across’ game, you see the kids going back and forth as the train’s getting nearer. (Laughs)
JANISSE: How did that work?
KRISH: With a zoom lens.
JANISSE: Were their parents on set?
KRISH: Absolutely not. No, they were all extras, all the adults. Who behaved wonderfully. I mean, extras are normally tiresome. They’re lazy, they’re looking for a bit more money, to get near the principal to get another five pounds…But this bunch was wonderful.
JANISSE: But it still seems scary to me, to actually have kids near a train, near the track, while making a film that’s meant to be a lesson not to do those exact things.
KRISH: I can’t explain my psychology about that, but…I wasn’t putting children at risk. I wouldn’t ever do that. But I was determined to make it as real as possible. Because the injuries on the railways of children, and people who work on the railways, are just horrific, the numbers. I just felt it must be made as strongly as possible.
JANISSE: That image of them all lying on the tracks…
KRISH: I wanted it to look like the Somme from 1914. The reaction was always the same – silence. And about three or four people always wanting to leave in the middle. And when I was commissioned to make a film about vandalism on the railway, the proviso was that I mustn’t show any. Write a film about vandalism but don’t show any in case it sets an example, gives them ideas. Being faced with this brief, what the hell do you do? So I got in touch with a mate who was in advertising, we’d made commercials together, and he’s got a kind of sideways mind sometimes, and we spent time just talking around it, just talking, talking. And by this time two months had gone past, and I had no ideas. But I wanted to make a film, not sit around trying to find an idea. And I came up with this idea of a sports day on the railway line, and I was absolutely sure they would turn it down so that I could get on with something else, and bugger me, they loved it. They loved it! The psychologist in the British Transport’s employ said, “This is exactly what we need!”
JANISSE: They have a psychologist? What was the function of the psychologist?
KRISH: I have to pass on that one, I don’t know. But he said yes, this will do the job. And then it did, and then they banned it. Cold feet, it’s called.
JANISSE: So the vandalism film became THE FINISHING LINE?
KRISH: Yes, and I thought they would turn it down because it’s so bizarre.
JANISSE: It is!
KRISH: It is, and I have to tell you, it’s my favourite film I’ve done, I just love it.
JANISSE: Where was the train station?
KRISH: In Hertfordshire. About 30 miles outside of London.
HOGAN: But I can imagine, I mean, as much as people go on about “Oh, it’s disturbing, we have to ban it,” all that sort of thing, you put kids in front of a camera and say “you’re going to play dead and we’re going to put fake blood all over you”, they love that!
JANISSE: I’ve heard from a lot of British people my own age who grew up in the 70s that they felt there was actually a mandate to scare them out of their wits with the children’s programming. Being on the other side of that, as one of the filmmakers, what do you think about that? There definitely was an unusual amount of scary programming for kids at that time, why do you think that was?
KRISH: I think it was because we had such limited screen time to bring the message home – and maximising the drama, making every shot count, was an imperative. I don’t believe there was a mandate to scare – it’s just that the casualty statistics, burns, road deaths and others were and are so high that these Awful Warnings were made in an atmosphere of hope that they’d stay in the minds of those of all ages and changes might happen… It was, I believe, a forlorn hope – although a fire info two-minuter I made with a stunt man coming out of a room ablaze from head to foot did save a life – there was a news item in a local South London Paper from a parent who, having seen the footage, knew not to open the door of a burning room and saved her family.
THE FINISHING LINE is available as an extra, along with mini-feature H.M.P. and one-minute safety fillers SEWING MACHINE and SEARCHING on BFI Flipside’s DVD/Blu ray combo of CAPTURED, available HERE.
John Krish also wrote the introduction to Headpress’ book OFFBEAT: BRITISH CINEMA’S CURIOSITIES, OBSCURITIES AND FORGOTTEN GEMS, which we reviewed HERE.
Also, in tribute to THE FINISHING LINE, we asked Jon Brooks of UK-based hauntology outfit THE ADVISORY CIRCLE to put together a Public Information Film-themed mixtape for us, which you can listen to in the player below!